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Republicans Explain Why They’re Cooling on Trump

Conversations with Missouri GOP voters.
August 1, 2022
Republicans Explain Why They’re Cooling on Trump
(Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

Sarah Longwell, a master at detecting emerging trends from focus groups, has recently been alerting audiences that Republican voters are losing their enthusiasm for a third Trump presidential run.

Curious to hear what declining GOP support for Trump actually sounds like—and to get a sense of what’s animating it—we took the opportunity on July 26 to probe that topic, and various others, in two focus groups. The respondents were not our usual Trump-to-Biden swing voters, but rather thirteen Missouri Republicans who, even at this late date, remain undecided in the state’s August 2 GOP Senate primary. (Disclosure: The research was sponsored by Arnold Ventures.)

While these Republican respondents expressed mixed emotions, they were by and large either opposed to or underwhelmed by the possibility of a Trump 2024 presidential run.

Five of the thirteen said outright that they don’t want him to run again. Many of those cited his character and his behavior on January 6th as his greatest shortcomings. John M., 54, from Wildwood, shared his disapproval of the former president: “I think it’s just a real character issue. I voted for him last time. I don’t think he has the character to be president. I love his policies, but don’t like his character at all.”

Lisa R., 43, from Smithville, had similar thoughts about Trump’s character, saying that it “tells a lot of a person to have the bullying stance that [Trump] took within his party and against the Democratic party, and then have his wife run an anti-bullying campaign. . . . So for me, he lost a lot of respect just throughout his whole presidential term.”

One respondent, Kathy R., 65, from St. Louis, strongly disapproved of Trump’s role in the events on January 6th, calling them wrong and essentially disqualifying him as fit for the presidency. “And just that fact alone [January 6th], the man doesn’t deserve to be president again,” she said. “I mean, that was the first time that it’s happened on a federal building . . . and by a president . . . so I’m just totally against him.”

One of the most surprising emotions expressed by respondents was one that is not usually associated with Republican voters’ attitudes towards Donald Trump: ambivalence. Indeed, of those who remain open to another Trump campaign, many expressed the most tepid form of excitement.

“I’m by no means overly enthusiastic about Trump running,” said Diane B., 47, from Platte City. “I would say I’m between ambivalent and [being] for him running.” Sounding like a buyer who has started to shop around as her brand loyalty wanes, she added, “I would really like to see maybe [what] some of the other options are.”

When considering alternate candidates, Richard F., 32, from Platte City, saw Trump as somewhat of a default vote, with no other candidates filling his conception of an ideal president—at least not yet. “If it was between [Trump] and Biden, it’d be [Trump], but, you know, I would rather prefer a stronger candidate,” he said. “I guess I’m not saying if it was between the two of them that I wouldn’t go with [Trump], so I don’t want him to not run.”

Tina B., 46, from High Ridge, echoed Richard’s opinion: “I’m not 100 percent where I don’t support him [Trump], but I agree that there are some things that he’s probably lost a lot of support, and thinking about it, I don’t think he represented the country in the best light. . . . I would rather have a stronger candidate that would be more supported by the Republican party.”

Who is this potentially stronger candidate that these two respondents are looking for? With Mike Pence and Ron DeSantis aiming for the Republican nomination and performing well in early national polling, we wondered how Missouri Republican voters feel about them both.

Of the thirteen GOP respondents, eight want DeSantis to run, and only three want Pence to run.

Why were so few supportive of Pence?

Richard said that “frankly, I didn’t really see much of him when he was VP.” And Lisa R. observed, “He doesn’t seem like he wants it. I mean, he’s really been out of the limelight since the election.”

Harking back to Pence’s time as vice president, Jeff K., 64, from O’Fallon, added:

He just seemed like he would just be OK with anything that Donald Trump did. And so I lost a lot of respect for him in that matter. . . . After the January 6th thing, I think he stood up and did some good things. But his standing up during that time . . . was outweighed by four years of just kind of like being a lackey.

It is not only Republican presidential candidates who do not excite these respondents, but also many of the candidates running in the upcoming Missouri Republican Senate primary. Most of the respondents are unaware of who is running. When shown unlabeled photos of the three leading Republican Senate candidates, a majority could not identify any by name.

The most identifiable—or least unidentifiable—candidate was Eric Greitens. Of the six respondents who recognized him, all used very harsh words to describe him. Lisa R. labeled him a “party jumper” because “he gets wishy washy on what he wants to stand for.” Some of the other respondents were more vicious, calling him a “weasel” and “conniving.” Kathy called him “unethical, immoral, and not a good guy.”

A Super PAC ad featuring a voiceover reading sworn statements from Sheena Greitens, the candidate’s ex-wife, raises pointed questions about his integrity and temperament. We showed that ad to respondents. Many questioned whether the ad was telling the truth, but at the same time most respondents thought it cast enough doubt that it would make it harder for them to vote for Greitens in the Senate primary.

The two other leading GOP Senate candidates—Vicky Hartzler and Eric Schmitt—were less well known, and received more moderate or indifferent descriptions from the few respondents who recognized them. Hartzler was described as “conservative and measured” by Diane B., and Jeff K. recognized Schmitt, the state’s attorney general, as being “strong on crime.”

It seems that undecided Missouri Republican voters’ lack of enthusiasm for Trump extends not only to other GOP presidential candidates but to the state’s top-tier Senate primary candidates as well. Perhaps it’s the candidates themselves. Or perhaps it’s just the DNA of undecided voters, many of whom don’t pay close attention to campaigns and then struggle mightily to make up their minds.

Rich Thau and Jill DiTommaso

Rich Thau is the president of the research firm Engagious, which specializes in message testing and message refinement for trade associations and advocacy groups. He is also the moderator of the Swing Voter Project, conducted in partnership with Schlesinger Group. Jill DiTommaso is an intern at Engagious and a student at Haverford College.